Tuesday, December 20, 2005

This Old House

SJF • Advent 4b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

The Lord spoke through the prophet Nathan and said to David, “The Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name.”
I’m sure that most of us here have seen at least one episode of the PBS TV series “This Old House.” For anyone who hasn’t, it involves a group of experts with a big budget doing massive renovations on different houses of different styles in different parts of the country. One can get quite an education watching this program and learn a good bit about plastering, woodworking, electrical installation, roofing, and heating and air-conditioning. Almost, I must say, as one can learn by being the vicar of Saint James Fordham!

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But on this last Sunday of Advent we are called to think of a different kind of house, or rather two different kinds of houses: one of them indeed something like those on “This Old House” or even more like Saint James Church, made of stone and wood and plaster; but the other of a different sort altogether, made of flesh and blood.

Both of these houses are referred to in Nathan’s prophecy to David. King David, you may recall, had wanted to build a permanent house for the ark of the covenant — a grand temple of stone and cedar as a suitable dwelling place for that powerful and dangerous vehicle of the presence of God. The ark had been carried through the wilderness and housed in a tent and a tabernacle — but never in a house of stone except for that brief time when the Philistines stole it and put it in the temple of their false god Dagon. The wrath of the true God came upon them almost as dramatically as in the Indiana Jones movie about that self-same ark. The Philistines of Ashdod couldn’t get rid of that ark of the covenant soon enough, stricken as they were with plagues, and the statue of their deity Dagon fallen flat on its face. So eventually — after trying to palm it off on four other Philistine cities with similarly disastrous results — they sent it back to Israel with gifts by way of apology.

Given that, one might think twice about building a house for the ark of God to rest in. But David had a mind to build just such a house. However, as he would soon learn, God had other plans, and instructed Nathan to tell David that he was not the one to build God a house of stone. This task would fall to his offspring; as indeed it did when Solomon built the temple that his father had only dreamed of.

But Nathan also spoke of another kind of house: that house of flesh and blood I mentioned a moment ago. The Lord said that he would make David a house: meaning a house in the sense of a royal heritage, a dynasty, like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. This royal lineage would not be a house of stone, but a house of living flesh and blood, a chain of inheritance and a royal bloodline that would be passed down from generation to generation. David would not end like Saul — a king with no one to succeed him. No, David would be the first monarch of a kingdom that would last for ever, a royal house that would stand for all time.

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So what happened? Within one generation after David, due to Solomon’s infidelity — as he was led into idolatry by his many pagan wives — the kingdom of David that was to last for all time ceased to be. The kingdom was first divided, the Twelve Tribes split up like a torn and ruined garment, and then after many years of ups and downs, taken off into captivity — Israel first and then Judah, and after returning home from Babylon only marginally ever able to reestablish itself for a brief time, before the Romans finally smashed it once and for all.

And that might have been the end of it all but for one thing. And that is the other house I spoke of: the one of living flesh and blood, of ancestral descent in the royal line. For God would raise up a Son of David, not Solomon, but long after Solomon and his immediate heirs had lost the earthly kingdom. And the throne of this Son of David would endure for ever — for his throne is notan earthly throne, but a throne set in heaven.

So it was that the angel Gabriel went forth to that town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to marry a man of the House of David. Her name was Mary, and it is said of her that she too was reckoned to be of David’s line — since the angel assured her that Joseph would have nothing to do with the conception of this child but would be his foster-father, and yet that the Lord God would give this child the throne of his ancestor David — his ancestor through Mary “according to the flesh” (as Saint Paul would say to the Romans), even more importantly than through Joseph by adoption.

And so the house into which this child was born was no mere house of wood and stone; it was a house of flesh and blood — this old house of flesh and blood that traced its lineage back long before David, long before Moses, long before Abraham and the patriarchs, back to the beginning when flesh and blood was first made from the clay of the riverbank, and the breath of God breathed life into it, and it became a living soul.

This old house of flesh and blood had seen much damage since those early days; the telltale damage that came from the disobedience of Adam and Eve — the cost of deferred maintenance when we get our priorities out of order. Yet God kept his promise that this old house of flesh and blood could be renovated and restored.

And just as in the TV program “This Old House” the homeowners give the producers permission to come into their homes and do their work of restoration, so too the restoration of humanity begins with just such permission being given. Undoing the disobedience of Eve and Adam, Mary of Nazareth says the words that open the door to transformation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary opens the doors of this old human house and lets God in, to do his wonderful work.

God could make this old house new: working in human flesh the wonder of the incarnation, so that within the womb of Mary of Nazareth, in that house of flesh and blood God himself would be pleased to dwell: the son of God, now in flesh appearing.

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This renovation can happen in our flesh too, this same renewal can come to our own blood — our dilapidated houses can be restored and rebuilt. Our renewal can take place when we allow our Lord and God, by his daily visitation, to purify our consciences, to enter our hearts and take up residence there, in what at his word and work can become a mansion prepared for God to dwell. One of my favorite hymns — and we’ll be singing it at the end of our worship today — contains the wonderful verse addressing God in just this way: “Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.”

God wants this invitation. God will not force this restoration upon us: God has given us the dangerous gift of free-will and we can choose to bar and bolt our doors and pull down the shades and turn out the lights and pretend we’re not at home when he comes to the door and knocks. We can pretend we’re perfectly happy with the falling plaster and leaking pipes and peeling paint of our unrestored spiritual selves.

Or we can accept God’s offer to make us new, to restore and renovate us after his own image, in the likeness of his Son, adopting us through him into that royal lineage of the House of God. God wants our tumbledown bungalows to become palaces and temples and mansions of his habitation. God wants us commoners to be adopted into the royal family, to share with Jesus in the royal priesthood of the kingdom of God. And God will do it if we let him. For he is, as Saint Paul said, “able to strengthen us according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.” May we be strengthened to accept his invitation, day by day to invite his visitation, opening our hearts to say with blessed Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

SJF • Advent 2b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Comfort is one of those words that has unfortunately, over time, almost completely lost its original meaning. When we hear the word comfort the first thing that is likely to come to mind is an overstuffed sofa or one of those space-age mattresses we keep seeing in the commercials on TV — you know the ones: where people can balance wine glasses or drop bowling balls next to you, but you can just go right on sleeping because the bed is so, well, comfortable.

But that’s not the original meaning of the word comfort. The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” — to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come.

Let me give you an example of what I regard as a proper use of the word comfort in this old-fashioned sense. When Bloody Mary came to the throne of England in 1553, and reestablished Roman Catholicism as the state religion, the Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley knew that they would not be long for this world. Sure enough the two of them were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555. As they were about to die that terrible death, Bishop Latimer spoke his famous last words, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.” Clearly comfort is not about being cozy but about being courageous even in the face of such a terrible end, to “be of good comfort” in the knowledge that the flames of present suffering will pass, and the glorious hope of the future awaits.

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So it is that when God commands Isaiah to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem and its people, it is not to say, “Make yourselves at home.” On the contrary, the prophet here is telling the people that the day of liberation has come — they need no longer make themselves at home in Babylon, as once they did. Rather, in these tidings of comfort and joy they are being recalled to their own homeland. God will prepare a way for them in the wilderness, leveling every mountain and filling in every valley, evening out the uneven spots, and planing down the rough ones, to make a broad, clear highway for his people. And God himself will be their shepherd, leading them in his might, and even carrying the lambs close to his breast. These are words of great comfort to people in captivity, words not just to make them feel good, but to live in hope and strength for a better time.

Saint Peter offers similar encouragement in our Epistle today: explaining that the Lord’s delay is not neglect, but patience; He doesn’t want anyone to have any excuse for not being part of the great procession into the new creation, the new heaven and new earth. This world — this Babylon, if you will — is set to expire, and it will dissolve in a flash of fire. So this time of God’s patience is for all of us to be prepared, to be ready, to be courageous, to be comforted with the knowledge of God’s redeeming love for us, and the salvation given in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist greets us with such words of strong comfort as well: quoting Isaiah and thereby reminding the people of that ancient comforting promise of liberation — not right now, he tells them; not yet — but soon! John is speaking to Jews suffering under the heel of a foreign occupying power: the might of the Roman Imperium with itslegions and fleets. John offers words of comfort to a people ground down by the kind of corrupt government that such a colonial system is apt to promote: the soldiers who abuse, the tax collectors who gouge, the politicians who connive and the judges who turn a blind eye to the poor and favor the rich.

John offers comfort to those on the receiving end of these various injustices, and a warning and a call to repentance to those who practice them. He preaches the word that Paul would take up later: God is patient, but do not presume on his patience. Be strong either to endure or repent: and take comfort in the coming of the Lord.

John appears as a prophet and advance man for the big show that is coming to town — and we’ll hear more about that next week. There is much to hope for, much more to come, much more that will be revealed — so, John is telling the people, take comfort and be prepared.

So it is that all our scripture today speaks to us in the same accents: take comfort — be strong. Be prepared for the Lord who redeems you, and who will come to liberate you from all captivity, who will make the way clear before you, so that you too might be led on your way to the new heavens and new earth, and be at home at last in that place of righteousness.

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Let me close with a story about another great Anglican, Charles Simeon, who was one of the founders of the Church Missionary Society. He could be called a “theologian of comfort,” from the one end of his life in the church to the other. At the beginning of his adult life in the faith, he had much difficulty in preparing himself to receive the Holy Communion, Back then Communion was something you might receive only a few times each year, and much was made about being in a proper frame of mind — perhaps we’ve lost something of that sense of the importance of preparation to receive Communion. There were many devotional guides, little booklets to help with the individual Christian in preparing for “this awful mystery” — and unfortunately for Simeon the devotional guide he used put all of its weight on law, humiliation, unworthiness and obedience as the ways rightly to approach that holy sacrament. This did little but make Simeon feel miserable. Fortunately he came across another devotional guide that took an entirely different approach, a truly evangelical approach in the sense of bringing him tidings of comfort and joy, the good news of the gospel. This book stressed the fundamental truth that the law cannot make one righteous, but that it is only through Christ, and the sacrifice he made of himself once offered upon the cross for our salvation, that we are washed from sin and prepared to welcome him, and be welcomed by him. We don’t have to become worthy — indeed we cannot: it is Christ who makes us worthy! This comforting assurance liberated Simeon, and inspired and strengthened him not only to make his Communion, but to become one of the great evangelists of the Christian faith, spreading the truly good news that, as Isaiah said, we have served our term, and our penalty is paid, and that our Lord has redeemed us.

The end of Charles Simeon’s life reflected this same strong consciousness of comfort. As he lay dying, he greeted the people gathered around his bedside with a bright smile and cheerful sense of comfort and joy. He asked the gathered friends and family, “What do you think especially gives me comfort at this time?” As they did not wish to hazard a guess, he cried out, “God’s creation! For I ask myself, Did God create the world or did I? And I must answer, He did! Now if he made the world and all the rolling spheres of the universe, he certainly can take care of me. Into Jesus’ hands I can safely commit my spirit!”

It is this consciousness of comfort, this acceptance of the tidings of comfort and joy, that God calls us to this Advent time, and on through Christmas, and on through into the rest of the life God gives us, until we too find our way to get ourselves up the high mountain, hearing the voice of theherald of good tidings lifted up, not fearing, in the knowledge of comfort, and hope in God’s promise, and ready to take our place in the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness is at home, and where we too at last shall be at rest with our Lord and our God, to whom all praise be given, henceforth and for evermore.